Neil Quilliam
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Though derided at the time, Hafez al-Assad looks a master strategist in comparison to his blundering son.
A broken picture of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad at the Bab Al-Hawa border gate after clashes between Syrian rebels and the Syrian army on 20 July 2012. Photo by Getty Images.A broken picture of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad at the Bab Al-Hawa border gate after clashes between Syrian rebels and the Syrian army on 20 July 2012. Photo by Getty Images.

One could be forgiven for forgetting that Syria was once a significant foreign policy player in its region. Late president Hafez al-Assad was particularly effective at drawing on international support, sometimes Soviet, sometimes American, in pursuit of Syria’s regional goals, and was a master at using proxies to spoil and undermine the interests of his enemies in neighbouring states. Since 2011, however, the regime under his son, Bashar al-Assad, has lost its grip on foreign policy; international and regional powers now pull the strings of those proxy groups operating inside Syria.

A legacy of strategic foreign policy

Although Assad senior was unpopular among Western and regional leaders and often pursued policies inimical to their interests, many would now begrudgingly admit that he was a strategic thinker who held the advantage of playing the long game in foreign relations. Despite his penchant for proxies, he was consistent and largely predictable.

During his reign (1970-2000), Assad senior used a combination of guile and calculated brutality to help transform Syria from being the plaything of both former imperial and regional powers into a state to be reckoned with. He based Syria’s foreign policy on the conception of an Arab national interest, with the aims of ensuring longevity of his Baathist regime, seeking strategic parity with Israel and making Syria, by hook or by crook, the leader in the Arab struggle with Israel. Especially after Egypt signed a peace treaty following the Camp David Accords, Damascus prided itself on posing the only credible military threat (direct and indirect) to Israel, helping it to maintain a beneficial status quo.

Quite rightly, the Assad regime drew strong criticism for its meddling in the affairs of its neighbours, notably, Lebanon, where Syria intervened militarily in 1976, and Palestine, playing host to the  rejectionist groups that opposed former Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. However, his meddling was aimed at extending Syrian influence over Lebanon and the Palestinian issue by supporting proxies. Under Assad, Syria became the region’s spoiler par excellence and consistently undermined international and regional efforts that did not accord with Syrian interests, including in the Iran-Iraq war. Assad’s backing of Iran in that conflict put him at odds with the Gulf Arab states and looked short-sighted and opportunistic. Many years later, it has proven to be a successful investment.

Assad senior was particularly adept at leveraging the weaknesses of both his allies and enemies to his own advantage. For example, when Egypt President Anwar Sadat took a step closer to the US and kicked out 15,000 Soviet ‘advisers’ in 1972, Assad took the opportunity to draw closer to Moscow and strengthened the terms of trade with the superpower. As US influence in the Middle East appeared to grow in the zero-sum game of the Cold War, Assad was able to trade on Soviet vulnerability, as he drew on a near blank cheque for many years.  

When the Soviet Union began to unravel in 1989, Assad understood that a new world order was emerging and he capitalized upon Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 to realign Syria with the US-led coalition that liberated the Gulf state. The deployment of 12,000 troops may have been symbolic, but it was enough to persuade the coalition that Syria was a serious partner. Moreover, the US responded by giving Assad senior the green light to move against Iraqi-backed General Michel Aoun in Lebanon, who had established a rival presidency. Consequently, Syria came to dominate Lebanon with Western blessing until its hasty exit in April 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Squandered relationships

At the time, these policy choices led many analysts to argue that Syria had no foreign policy, as such, and label Assad senior as a capricious autocrat. This sounds very much like the charge levelled against his son. But there is one key difference: Assad senior was a strategic foreign policy player who looked to the long term. He was a ruthless leader always ready to use hard-line tactics in pursuit of making Syria central to the comprehensive peace with Israel. However, he also understood the limits of his tactics and the dangers of crossing red lines. For example, the military threat from Turkey in 1998 led Assad senior to hand over Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to the Turkish government. Furthermore, the integrity of the 1974 Disengagement Agreement between Syria and Israel along the Golan Heights was never breached during his presidency.

It is Bashar al-Assad, in the end, who has proven to be a capricious autocrat. The assassination of Hariri proved a pivotal moment in Bashar’s presidency, as it not only led to the rapid withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after 29 years, but also crossed a red-line with Saudi Arabia, which had, until then, supported the young leader. Bashar further infuriated late Saudi king Abdullah when he called him a ‘half man’ following the monarch’s criticism of Syria’s position during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, which was only exacerbated when the Syrian president refused the king’s counsel in 2012 in exercising restraint during the Arab Spring. In essence, Bashar ‘disrespected’ both Hariri and King Abdullah and made a mortal enemy of the latter.

Consequently, he was forced to turn to Russia, Iran and Iraq for support when the Arab Spring turned violent as his former partners among the Gulf Arab states worked to unseat him. Instead leveraging support from its partners to advance Syria’s regional interests, the regime has become dependent upon them for survival, and thus has surrendered its foreign policy to the highest bidder.

This expert comment is part of the Chatham House spotlight Four Years On: The Costs of War in Syria.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback